Last Friday, along with the rest of the world, I witnessed the bravest 30 seconds of video I’ve ever seen as President Zelensky declared that “We are here. We are in Kyiv. We are defending Ukraine.” (Propaganda out of Russia had suggested that President Zelensky and his team had fled Kyiv.)
It reminded me of an eerily similar scenario from over a decade ago, when Russia invaded Georgia.
In 2009, I was the Product Manager responsible for running Blogger. Blogger was not only the largest blogging platform in the world at the time, it was the largest social media site in the world – receiving more traffic than even Facebook. (Thank you in advance for not pointing out what happened to Blogger’s lead the following year.) In many countries, Blogger received more daily traffic than even Google itself. And in one of those countries, a refugee from Abkhazia region who was opposed to the Russian invasion maintained one of the country’s most popular blogs: a blog named after his village, Cyxymu.
A little context: the year before, Russia invaded Georgia. Ahead of the invasion, the Russians cut the communications lines into Georgia, leaving Georgians unable to connect to the Internet, and disabling outside access to official government websites. Undeterred, President Saakashvili’s team used a satellite phone to set up a blog on Blogger. For the next four months, that Blogspot-hosted blog was the Republic of Georgia’s official line of communication with the outside world.
Because of that, a number of us at Google were quite familiar with periodic denial of service attacks aimed at Google properties that clearly originated inside of Russia. They rarely (ever? my memory’s fuzzy, but I don’t recall a successful DDoS attack taking any Google properties offline… I’m not positive though) succeeded in disrupting Google’s operations, but it did give Google’s SRE team an ongoing front row seat to these offensive operations designed to knock services offline.
Back to Cyxymu: his blog was an ongoing account of the Russia/Georgia war. And on the one year anniversary of Russia’s invasion, the Russians wanted to silence him. To do it, they executed a two-pronged attack to take down Twitter, Facebook, Blogger, YouTube, and LiveJournal – services Cyxymu was active on at the time. (Yes, you read that right: the Russian government attempted to shut down Twitter, Facebook, Blogger, YouTube, and LiveJournal – all to silence one man.)
Over the next 36 hours, Twitter would bear the brunt of the attack. Facebook and LiveJournal had intermittent issues. At Google, we were pretty transparent about being a target of the attack at the time; a week after the attack concluded, I authored a blog post on Google’s Public Policy blog about what we’d witnessed, and documented how we’d actively coordinated with teams at Twitter, Facebook, and LiveJournal to mitigate the impact of the attack for all users. (A few months later, the experience inspired me to write an op-ed at CNN.com about the importance of defending free speech, and linking blogging to our own country’s revolutionary history.)
Like many of you, the Russian invasion of Ukraine is occupying nearly all of attention. I’m horrified by the brutality, terrified for the tens of millions of Ukrainians under attack by Russia. I’m grateful for the social media sites giving us access to accounts from the front lines, giving us a sliver of hope that the Russian attack will fail even as they ominously document what appears to be a Belarusian entry into the war and Russian convoys preparing for a siege of Kyiv. To the many engineers working 24×7 right now to keep those services active so that all voices have a chance to tell their story: thank you. And to the people of Ukraine, and to the many around the world with family and friends in harm’s way: you are in my prayers.
BTW, Cyxymu is on Twitter, and is blogging at https://www.cyxymu.info/. And yesterday’s newsletter from Casey Newton exploring the role of these platforms in wartime is excellent: “The internet is a force multiplier for Ukraine.”